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Infectious disease work is about social justice

The wider impact of research

In 2015, infectious diseases researcher Professor Marc Pellegrini commenced research into a virus closely related to HIV and endemic to Indigenous communities in Central Australia. The human T-Leukaemia virus (HTLV-1) infects up to 60 percent of people in some communities – the highest levels globally. Professor Pellegrini states:

“HTLV-1 is an urgent issue because of the disproportionate amount of disease in the Indigenous population with no vaccines and no drugs to treat the infection”.

“We knew from our extensive work on HIV that this could be a preventable disease”.

The virus, which interferes with immune cells, can cause leukaemia, cancer, and paralysis, and commonly is identified in people with particularly bad cases of pneumonia or bronchitis.

Joining forces with Professor Damien Purcell, a virologist at the University of Melbourne and Associate Professor Lloyd Einsiedel, a physician working in Indigenous communities in Alice Springs, Professor Pellegrini and his lab team embarked on intensive research to find a solution.

Ground-breaking discovery

In 2021, Professor Pellegrini and his team made a profound discovery. Results of their laboratory studies determined that combining two existing HIV drugs cured HTLV-1 infection in 80 percent of cases. The results of this research are to be published in a prestigious journal and will soon be taken to human clinical trials.

“It’s very exciting and imperative that we have found a potential solution.”

To support this project, Professor Pellegrini is leading a research team to develop a portable, ‘point-of-care’ diagnostic device called c-FIND. This device can identify infections, including HTLV-1 in minutes, rather than the standard weeks.

Additionally, it can be loaded into the boot of a car and driven into remote communities. Professor Pellegrini is developing the device with collaborators and Axxin Pty Ltd. Pilot trials will be undertaken after consultation with Indigenous elders.

Philanthropic support for drug discovery

Professor Pellegrini credits the support of three philanthropic organisations with propelling the drug therapy and diagnostic device research:

  • The Drakensberg Trust
  • The Phyllis Connor Trust
  • The Erica Foundation
A group of men and women standing in a black tiled lobby
Above: Drakensberg Trust administrators, David, Gerald, John, Michael, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter with their extended families visit WEHI.

Professor Pellegrini states:

“Philanthropy was absolutely critical to us being able to progress this work”.

Benalla GP Dr Gerard Brownstein, who administers the Drakensburg Trust with siblings David and Elizabeth, was shocked to learn of the prevalence of HTLV-1 in Indigenous communities.

“You don’t often think of lab work as necessarily being something that is about social justice but that’s what it is at its heart”.

Gerard’s father Eddie Brownstein, a renowned Horsham surgeon, established the Drakensberg Trust in 1978 from inherited money and donated to social justice causes and medical research, including WEHI. Before his death in 2014, he had a decades-long personal relationship with WEHI, during which time he sat on WEHI’s Human Research Ethics Board. Gerard Brownstein states:

“WEHI has been very welcoming to us, too. Meeting up with the infectious disease team over morning tea has become a family occasion we all look forward to. These updates are always inspiring.”

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Illuminate Summer 2023
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